08/01/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Why Gay Marriage and Women's Rights Are Critical for the Elections


First things first. I am a heterosexual male and for most of my life have never really paid much attention to the rights of gay people or women. It simply didn't impact me. But over time I have come to realize that even specific issues like gay marriage or a woman's right to choose are not really about their status as being gay or female but about being denied the basic rights and respect that all humans deserve.

These past few weeks, Chick-fil-A has hogged the limelight with the anti-gay marriage stance of its president, but on the other side of this issue have been public figures like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Bill Gates of Microsoft. It is telling that the latter are all pioneering visionaries who have contributed to the advancement of our society. As usual, they are looking ahead.

The presidential elections of 2012 are understandably all about the economy. Without paychecks, few of us can afford to think about anything else and this includes both genders and all sexual orientations. But human rights are not a luxury that we can afford to forget about at times of crisis, but a necessary foundation of a prosperous society. Without food on the table we might go hungry but without human rights, our satiated appetites will mean nothing. In other words, just because times are tough does not mean that we should sweep issues like gay marriage or a woman's right to choose under the carpet when picking our president for the next four years.

Barack Obama's positions on these fronts are pretty clear. His recent statement on gay marriage was decisive and unambiguous. There is no doubt that he could do more, but so far he has not done badly; and what energy he has diverted into things like universal healthcare is also directed at preserving human dignity.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has shown an appalling lack of empathy with the gay population and with women on issues that are most important to them.

On gay marriage, his position leaves me scratching my head. Though he says that he is committed to the rights of all people and supports some types of same-sex unions, he defends marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. Since Romney himself subscribes to a faith that is often the target of prejudice, I believe that he is genuine about wanting equal rights for all. But his stance on the issue of marriage shows that he does not get the importance of that label for the gay community. It is not just about joint finances or health insurance, but about being granted equal status in society and being treated no differently than a heterosexual couple. By saying that same-sex unions are fine but gay marriages are not, Romney is inadvertently segregating the gay community from the rest of so-called "normal" society. It may be a subtle difference but one that impedes the progress of gay rights and encourages discrimination.

When it comes to women, Romney has said that he is "pro-opportunity for women, pro-moms, pro-working moms, pro-working women", but his positions don't support this. On average, American women earn 23 percent less than their male counterparts, yet Romney has been mostly silent on this issue, refusing to commit himself to the Paycheck Fairness Act advanced by Democrats and agreeing only not to repeal the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, both of which are designed to end economic discrimination against women.

Even on abortion, he is on the wrong side of the issue, publicly stating that he believes the Supreme Court should overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling -- which affirms a woman's legal right to an abortion. His track record is worse: as governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill designed to provide emergency contraceptives to victims of rape; and he endorsed the (eventually defeated) Blunt-Rubio Amendment, which would have allowed employers to exclude birth control from insurance coverage due to "moral objections." As in the case of his stance on gay marriage, Romney's views result in the separation of women from the rest of society in terms of their rights and freedoms.

His unwillingness (or maybe inability) to recognize the harmful effects of his positions shows just how disconnected he is from the people. A candidate running for the presidency of a nation that was born out of an absolute belief in equal rights does not campaign on the basis of exclusion. Romney may say that he is against discrimination but his choices and actions are what define his real position. I know that he is a conservative but he is a conservative living in the 21st century, when social mores and attitudes have evolved dramatically. A sensible candidate would embrace this evolution and help propel it further, not retard its progress.

Ironically though, Romney's problem is not his sexual orientation, the color of his skin, or his gender, but his privileged background. His wealth has both insulated and isolated him from the masses, preventing him from being able to grasp the realities of his society and from being able to empathize with the majority of Americans. Even just on economic issues, his support of tax cuts for the rich during a time of recession and ballooning deficits, his opposition to infrastructure development and public sector spending at a time of high unemployment, his support of subsidies for corporations that mistreat workers and ravage our environment, not to mention his stubborn refusal to release his tax returns, all demonstrate a cluelessness that would be even more dangerous in the White House.

So, whether you are a crusader for human rights or concerned primarily with the economy, gay marriage and women's economic and reproductive rights should be of paramount importance to you in these coming elections, for Romney's positions on these issues tell you a lot about who he is, and illustrate his apathy towards the most important founding principles of our democracy: fairness and equality. Also keep in mind that in the end we are all just one honest step away from taking a stand or being true to ourselves that can alienate us from society and invite judgment. Just ask Harvey Milk or Gloria Steinem.

Finally, if you still feel that nothing but the economy should matter, here are some sobering facts:

1. Just one year after enacting the Marriage Equality Act, New York City has seen a positive economic impact from the law of $259 million. Now imagine what could happen if gay marriage was the norm nationwide.
2. The loss in income for women due to pay inequality adds up to an average of $383,000 over a lifetime. That is $383,000 of lost buying power for almost half the population of the United States; not to mention that (forgive the stereotype) women are major influencers of buying decisions and often big shoppers.

Yep, preventing gays from marrying and holding women back are definitely helping our economy.

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